At some point, we all experience something called “social stress”–which is a type of stress caused by interacting with others, for instance, when giving a speech, going on a job interview or walking into a room full of strangers at a networking event.
Because I’m a relatively introverted person, I experience this type of stress when I’ve got to make small talk with people. Yet, unlike many folks, I don’t get stage fright–I can give a lecture to a packed room without a problem.
While the types of social situations that trigger stress will vary from person to person, a new study in the journal Physiology & Behavior reveals that how intense and long-lasting social stress is for you depends on where you are in your monthly cycle or if you’re post-menopausal (no longer menstruate).
Specifically, when you’re in the second half of your cycle (luteal phase), you have a more intense stress response to social stressors than when you’re in the first half of your cycle (follicular phase).
And post-menopausal women have a lower stress response to social stressors than women with monthly menstrual cycles–however, post-menopausal women take longer to recover from social stress than cycling women.
Read on to learn more about the study and my thoughts on it….
HOW THE STUDY WAS CONDUCTED
Three groups of women–those in the follicular phase and luteal phase of their cycles and who were post-menopausal–were given tests specifically designed to spur social stress: They had to deliver speeches and do challenging arithmetic in front of a small panel of people who were judging their performances.
Based on tests measuring the level of the stress hormone cortisol, self-reports and examining the behavior of the study participants, the researchers came to these conclusions:
- Women in the luteal phase of their cycle were more stressed in response to social situations than women in the follicular phase.
- Post-menopausal women were less stressed–producing less cortisol and experiencing a less speedy heart rate–and had less anxiety both before and after the stress tests than all cycling women.
- Before the stress test, post-menopausal women had a less negative mood than cycling women. While the mood in all groups became more negative after the stress test, the women in the first half of their cycles were only slightly more negative (indicating they bounced back from the stressor faster). Women in the second half of their cycles had the lowest mood of all after the test.
- Cycling women recovered from stress caused by social situations faster than post-menopausal women.
- During stressful social situations, cycling women used more passive “submissive” coping styles (such as holding in their feelings or escaping the situation) and reactive “displacement” coping styles (such as taking their feelings about one situation out on someone else who is unrelated to it or pouring their energy into an activity, such as working or cleaning, to deal with negative emotions) to cope with their stress.
- During stressful social situations, post-menopausal women used more gestures, helping them communicate their message more effectively.
WHAT’S BEHIND THE FINDINGS
Women in the second half of their cycles tend to be more stressed by social situations, which the researchers theorize is due to the combination of progesterone and estrogen causing more sensitivity to this type of stress.
Women in the first half of their cycles rebound faster from social stress likely because their stress doesn’t get as high to begin with, the researchers surmise.
Post-menopausal women take longer to rebound from social stress possibly because a decline in estrogen triggers dysfunction in brain regions that manage stress recovery.
MY TAKE ON THIS
Numerous studies have already pointed out that high estrogen in Week 2 of your cycle (the week leading up to and including ovulation) triggers higher stress because it causes more arousal in the brain. Plus, progesterone in Week 3 (the week following ovulation) has a sedating effect–making you calmer in stressful situations.
So, this finding that study volunteers were more stressed-out during the second half of their cycle than the first half is surprising–but, in my view, a little misleading. Here’s why:
During the second half of your cycle–your Week 3 and Week 4–you tend to be more self-conscious of your appearance due to lower levels of estrogen sapping brain chemicals needed to boost self-assurance as well as because of progesterone triggering water retention. Your memory and verbal skills also get dinged due to this same hormone combination. On top of this, your mood tends to be lower and you’re a bit more pessimistic. All of these factors combine to make social situations far more tense during the second half of your cycle than during the first half when rising estrogen boosts your mood, self-confidence, memory, verbal skills and comfort in new situations to cycle-long highs.
So, my personal opinion is that women may be more sensitive to this specific type of stress–social stress–during the second half of their monthly cycles, but become more stressed, in general, in their high-estrogen Week 2.
I also believe that post-menopausal women are less sensitive to social stress than cycling women, in part, because they simply have more experience and maturity in handling social situations. I know that as a 46-year-old woman, I personally have more confidence in high-tension social situations–such as live interviews and networking–than I did when I was in my 20s and 30s. Sure, lower estrogen may play also play a role in lower social stress in post-menopausal women, but it seems likely that life experience is just as influential.
I’d also like to point out that this study had a major flaw that I’ve found with many hormone studies: The researchers lumped Week 3 and Week 4 together as one phase–even though estrogen and progesterone rise in Week 3 and fall in Week 4. And, if you’re a regular reader of my Hormonology blog, then by now you know that rising hormones exert specific effects on you by engaging more hormone receptors; and falling hormones exert totally different effects due to the withdrawal they trigger. It’s not just about hormone levels. It’s also about the direction the hormones are heading.
One clear example of this is the time right before and at the start of your period. On these days, estrogen is super-low. However, because this hormone is falling on the days before your period, it triggers premenstrual symptoms, such as irritability, due to a withdrawal-like state. But once this hormone starts to rise during your period, these premenstrual woes disappear–even though your estrogen is actually only climbing slightly.
So, I believe a study conducted on all phases of the menstrual cycle–Week 1, Week 2, ovulation, Week 3 and Week 4–would render more accurate and meaningful results.
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOU
Despite what I feel are this study’s weaknesses, I think the end result is important to keep in mind: You can get more stressed in social situations during the second half of your monthly cycle. When this happens to you, try to use positive coping mechanisms–such as talking with a trusted friend or family member, journaling and focusing on the positives–to help you through it.